Me, Thyself and I: dependency and the issues of authenticity and authority in Christy Brown's My Left Foot and Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer and Steven B. Kaplan's I Raise My Eyes To Say Yes

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Author: Tom Coogan
Date: Oct. 2007
Publisher: Liverpool University Press (UK)
Document Type: Article
Length: 8,061 words

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Autobiography has been characterised by literary disability scholars as an unsatisfactory vehicle for documenting the disability experience, both on account of its format's tendency to individualise disability, and its broader ideological association with a model of liberal humanism that increasingly appears incompatible with the values of disability rights. This is further complicated by the issue of dependency, when a disabled subject's impairment is such that he or she is reliant on an (often able-bodied) collaborator to write an autobiography. This essay examines two such autobiographies from different historical periods, Christy Brown's My Left Foot and Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer and Steven B. Kaplan's I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, in order to explore the issues of authority and authenticity that arise from such collaborations, and to assess the interaction of the problematic genre of autobiography and the problematic concept of dependence.

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An exploration of dependency relations in social justice, public policy, and personal social identity, such as Martha Nussbaum's Frontiers of Justice, raises questions regarding the capacity of liberal models of independence and equality to address claims for access to both public spaces and social justice, and the extent to which dependent and interdependent relations must also be included. Similar questions can be raised in the field of literary disability. There, the capacity of genres exemplifying liberal models of independence, such as autobiography, to address claims for access to a literary space might be examined, and the need for dependent and interdependent relations might also be considered. Although dependency in disability autobiography is only one facet of dependency as a broader issue, this aspect nevertheless illuminates the subject in new ways. This can be seen in the apparently fundamental paradox of the genre: that, to produce an autobiography-the acme of independent, liberal, individual self-expression in literature-a disabled person may be almost entirely dependent on the assistance of somebody else. Furthermore, that assistant is likely to be able-bodied, which further complicates issues of dependency. With these considerations in mind, I will examine the issue of dependency in relation to two pieces of life-writing by disabled authors: Christy Brown's My Left Foot (1954), and Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer and Steven B. Kaplan's I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes (1989).

Disability Studies and Autobiography

Largely because of its popularity among a mainstream, nondisabled readership, disability autobiography has been viewed with suspicion by some critics. The genre typifies the "bourgeois sensibility of individualism" that Lennard Davis attacks for perpetuating the myth of disability as individual deviance rather than a group identity (1995, 3-4). David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have argued that, for its overwhelmingly nondisabled readership, disability autobiography simply functions to assure the reader of her or his "comparative good fortunes." They also note that the genre's convention of progression through a life disposes it to "stereotypical scenarios" such as "triumph over tragedy," which reinforce the idea of disability as a solely negative experience. Mitchell and Snyder do however recognise the strength of autobiography in allowing the expression of the "unique subjectivity" of disability "as a physical, cognitive, and social phenomenon" (9-13).

G. Thomas Couser offers a more positive appraisal of disability autobiography in Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing (1997). He argues that the formal simplicity of autobiography has made it one of the few literary genres "historically accessible to minorities of various sorts" and that it thus offers "significant potential for challenging the hegemonic discourse of disability" (181). Yet the factors that Couser highlights as the strengths of autobiography as a vehicle for an alternative expression of the disability experience present problems. For example, he notes that the medium of print "masks the body," and argues that this provides the disabled autobiographer with a "neutral space for self-presentation," thus enabling her or him to conduct a "renegotiation of status" (182). However, viewed from a more critical perspective, informed by the work of Davis, Mitchell and Snyder, the "neutral space" might instead be seen as a "neutralising" space. That is to say: the conventions of the form are shaped by the ideology of the normal to such an extent that any attempt to express a different (in this case disabled) experience will be "neutralised"--that is, normalised in a disempowering, rather than empowering, fashion. This effect can be recognised, to differing extents, in both My Left Foot and I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, as will be illustrated below. Another of Couser's arguments is that, as the "literary expression of the self-determined life," autobiography is "the ideal mode for contesting the association of disability with dependence." Here he comes up against the central paradox of disability autobiography. Observing that one of the requirements of autobiography is that it be written "preferably without assistance," he notes that many disabilities "impede or even preclude" this (182). However, he does not question the problematic characterisation of dependency as something inherently undesirable, something that will be addressed in more detail in regard to I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes.

Couser's analysis of the more obvious problems of disability autobiography is less controversial. He observes that although autobiography is the "most democratic of genres" in terms of production (anyone can write one), the reality of their consumption is rather different. To even merit publication, let alone become successful, an autobiography will, he notes, need to capitalise on some "pre-existing distinction" on the part of the author. (182). Disability will, he reasons, typically be the "distinction" that sets the life of a disabled author apart as a point of interest for their potential readership (comprised overwhelmingly of nondisabled people, as per the observations of Mitchell and Snyder). Although Couser does not expand on this, the negative associations can be avoided by carefully presenting the disability in the light of unusual achievement, to reconfigure the distinction between author and reader as positive, rather than negative. Arguably, this careful management can be seen in the titling of both My Left Foot and I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes: here, the focus on the subject's disability is narrowed carefully to the unusually high capacity they have been forced to develop in a particular area of their physical ability. Few of their readers could manage, or endure, composing a book with their foot, or by eye movements. Thus, the distinction of their disability is carefully presented as positive. However, this carries its own danger: even with a positive focus, the emphasis on physical distinction risks, as Couser notes, turning the book and its subject into an individual "case study," and thereby "reifying disability." He argues that this danger is made more acute by the fact that due to the barriers involved those disability autobiographies that do get published "may not in fact be very representative--in other words, typical-of those with disabilities" (183). The success of Still Me (1998), the autobiography of Christopher Reeve, a controversial figure for disability rights because of his presentation of the disability experience, is a recent and pertinent example of this.

Lastly, in a move that ties in with the theories of narrative proposed by Davis, Mitchell and Snyder, Couser notes "the problem of the comic master plot." He observes that this format requires the "overcoming" of disability in order to resolve the narrative, and that by definition most disabilities "are chronic and do not admit of cure or complete recovery" and are therefore "incompatible with plot" and "unnarratable" (1997, 183). However, Couser revises this position in "Making, Taking, and Faking Lives: Voice and Vulnerability in Collaborative Life Writing" (2004), where he re-classifies I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, as "a story of liberation, [...] akin to a slave narrative." (38) The same could arguably be said of My Left Foot, albeit in a more metaphorical and less literal sense: Brown refers to his life before he received physical therapy as one lived "behind prison bars" (MLF 136).


My Left Foot, published to popular acclaim when the author was twenty-two, is credited to Brown as sole author, but makes reference to a number of people's roles in its composition, most notably Dr. Collis, his physician, an author, playwright, and autobiographer. I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, published in the year that an Oscar-winning film adaptation brought a new audience to Brown's work, is credited equally to both authors: Sienkiewicz-Mercer, a disabled woman, and Kaplan, an able-bodied man. Although both Brown and Sienkiewicz-Mercer had cerebral palsy, the contexts in which their texts were produced differed substantially. Brown was raised in mid-twentieth-century Dublin, Ireland: he thus had no exposure to any readymade conception of his disability as a cohesive political or social identity (although he did develop a sense of this, as we shall see). Though misdiagnosed as an 'imbecile' as an infant, he was integrated into his family and home-schooled to the best of his mother's abilities. Thus, he had a venue and opportunity for self-expression and recognition, which ultimately led to his meeting with Collis and his access to physical therapy, and the doctor's advice on writing. Given these factors, it is unsurprising that Brown's text is very much in the traditional mode of the individual overcoming personal adversity, which is criticized by Disability studies scholars. Sienkiewicz-Mercer, raised in Massachusetts, USA, in the 1950s and 1960s, was likewise misdiagnosed as an 'imbecile', but, for financial and familial reasons, spent the majority of her childhood in institutions, where she was denied education or physical therapy. However, her entry into adulthood in the mid 1970s coincided with the emergence of the disability rights movement, to which she was exposed by an encounter with the independent living movement. Through an associated education program she met Kaplan and began collaborating on her story with himthus, her text explicitly emerges from a disability rights context, shaped by (and part of, as its Afterword explicitly states) her campaigning for independent living and mainstream education for children with disabilities.

These differing contexts obviously produce different priorities and motivations for writing, but this is further complicated by the differing nature of the authors' dependencies-shaped not just by differing levels of impairment, but by the different prostheses available to them. From an early age, Brown was physically able to write, using his eponymous left foot. He was also able to speak (even though he could only be understood by those familiar with him). An informal education and therapy increased his capacities, allowing him to type. He could also dictate to a scribe-a faster, less wearying process. The neglect of Sienkiewicz-Mercer, however, left her unable to write or speak. When her ability to communicate via facial expressions was (re)discovered in her late teens, therapists devised a communication system of spelling and words boards, selected through gestures. The limits of this system (her word board vocabulary was only 800 words) meant that, for her, communication remained dependent upon a high level of commitment and involvement from an assistant.

Solo Attempts at Autobiography

Both Brown and Sienkiewicz-Mercer made attempts at life-writing on their own initiative prior to their eventual collaborative efforts, and both projects faltered. Because these versions were abandoned, they are available only through the accounts provided in the collaborative texts by which they were superseded. These accounts are arguably coloured by the agenda of the later text, but in spite (or perhaps because) of this, provide a useful perspective from which to examine the subject's dependence on a collaborator, and the extent of the collaborator's influence.

According to My Left Foot, Brown's first attempt at writing an autobiography is made at the age of eighteen, although he had written fiction as a teenager. He begins after he is enrolled on an intensive physical therapy program at Dr. Collis's cerebral palsy clinic in Dublin. He comes to realise that, although the program offers him "physical independence," his "inner, emotional life [.] would never, could never really be 'normal'" (MLF 136). Simultaneously, he feels a "brotherly insight" into the experience of his fellow patients that "no words of [his] could describe" (130). Discerning a "strange beauty" there, he has an urge to tell "the world as a whole" about it, not just on his own behalf, but on the behalf of "all who had a life similar" to his (132, 139). In order to spread this message, Brown selects autobiography as the medium (142). However, as part of the physical therapy program's attempt to normalise his body, he has vowed not to use his left foot to write. Thus, he is forced to recruit his brother, one of the few able to understand his speech at that time, as a scribe. In a carefully staged scene, Brown portrays the boy as a "fool" who will "just hold the pen," thus demonstrating a concern for authenticity that surfaces throughout the text. The result is "The Reminiscences of a Mental Defective," which My Left Foot criticises harshly. The focus of this dissatisfaction is the style, particularly the tendency to turn "a simple statement" into "a complex one," to use a whole paragraph "to express a single thought," and to indulge in repeated "digressing" (142-44). Brown includes a sample of the text to illustrate this point: "It is when we are released from the turbulence and feverish activity of the day that we fall, without conscious effort or mental volition, into a reverie mingled with regrets and mellow joys ... All the happy and tearful scenes of the forgotten past crowd before our inner eye" (144-45). According to My Left Foot, Brown abandoned this version because he felt that he was writing "mechanically" and that the product lacked "an intelligible form" (145). He immediately identifies a collaborator as the solution to this problem: "If only I had someone to advise me, to show me how to write clearly and constructively with no gaps between or holes in the middle! Someone who would know what he was talking about, who would put me onto the right path. I needed a guiding hand; I needed someone not only with brains but with a heart as well" (146). With the intervention of such a collaborator, fulfilling the exacting specifications that Brown sets out, this original style is eliminated from My Left Foot. Yet it, or something like it, re-appears in a much later text, Down all the Days (1970). This is significant because the latter is an autobiographical novel, based on the same material as My Left Foot: a teenager with cerebral palsy growing up in a working class Dublin family, the Browns. The style, however, is more complex and digressive: "He heard only his own loud chaos and nowhereness, saw only the tangled ways of his exile, the mouth of night engulfing him, the key forever turning in the lock, the lonely footfall forever turning upon the hill, the leaf falling in the forest" (Brown 1970, 222-23). The re-emergence of this style for the telling of the story reveals two things. Firstly, it is not inadequate per se, but simply unsuitable for the purposes of My Left Foot. Secondly, in being the distinguishing feature of what is in effect a supplement to My Left Foot, it suggests that style is integral to the lack that the novel's very existence implies.

I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes offers only the barest details of an abortive effort by Sienkiewicz-Mercer to write her life-story in 1976, while still incarcerated, three years before meeting Kaplan. Unlike Brown, little detail of her motivation is recorded except for the observation that the project grew out of her introduction to speech therapy (Sienkiewicz-Mercer and Kaplan 189). This might be attributed to Kaplan's influence over the text: in the Introduction he claims that his subject has "never written or typed a sentence" (vii). However, as Couser notes, "writing" as a term can cover anything from invention to copy-editing (2004, 36). Therefore, despite Kaplan's judgement, Sienkiewicz-Mercer's actions can indeed be interpreted as the preliminary stages of "writing" a book: for example, she "spent a lot of time talking [.] about different ideas for [the] book" and began "to outline the basic elements" using a TIC communication device (Couser 1997, 171). Her attempt apparently stagnated due to the laborious process of typing using this device, although the text acknowledges that her lack of literacy was an "even greater problem". By the time she met Kaplan she was frustrated by "the total lack of progress on this project" (172).

The Collaborators

In "Making, Taking, and Faking Lives: Voice and Vulnerability in Collaborative Life Writing," Couser examines the issue of collaborative life-writing more fully, with particular reference to its ethical implications. Although he notes that roles and contributions can vary, he observes that such relationships generally comprise two individuals who fall into two roles: subject and writer. One, he observes, "supplies the 'life' while the other provides the 'writing'" (36). This split, Couser argues, instils an "inherent disparity" in the relationship (37). He sees this as a result of the way in which the "monological" nature of the final product, the text, obscures the "dialogical" process of its production (35). This idea of the text as a "monological" space invites comparison with his earlier idea of "neutral space," as we shall see below. However, aside from this basic disparity, he also perceives the issues of power and status as complicating such relationships. To illustrate this point, he schematizes all such collaborative relationships as existing in a continuum, ordered according to their power balances (54). At one extreme he places the ghostwritten celebrity autobiography as an example of a text dominated by the identity of the subject (50). At the other, as an example of a text dominated by the identity of the writer, he positions ethnographic life writing, such as slave narratives, or so-called American Indian autobiography (where the interests and agendas of the European American writers shape the life stories of their Native American subjects) (42). In doing this, Couser specifically cites I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, classifying it as more closely aligned to the ethnographic model because, he argues, Sienkiewicz-Mercer's impairments place her "among 'those who do not write'" (Philip Lejeune's term for the subjects of ethnographic life writing). He perceives her as sharing this group's defining characteristic: a lack of power that results from an inability "to review the manuscript and mandate changes" (37-38).

Among the few things I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes reveals about the founding of the Sienkiewicz-Mercer/Kaplan relationship is their meeting under the auspices of the "F.R.E.E." education program. Kaplan, then a trainee lawyer, volunteered for this program organised by independent living advocates. As a volunteer, it can perhaps be assumed that he was sympathetic to its purposes and motivated by altruistic reasons. However ethically sound his motivations may therefore seem, it is important to weigh Couser's observation that the multitude of volunteers that tend to make up the bulk of those assisting disability life writing are largely amateur rather than professional writers, and are thus "not necessarily conscious of ethical constraints" (54). A further ethical problem is the issue of choice. Given the voluntary nature of the program it is conceivable that Sienkiewicz-Mercer had only a limited choice from which to select a collaborator.

The issue of choice with regard to collaborator is particularly important in My Left Foot. The Brown/Collis relationship does not appear to fit into Couser's continuum because the text is credited to Brown alone. Arguably, this is because the text is produced according to a predisability studies model, where a disability autobiography seeking wider appeal at the time would have to be presented as a tale of an individual overcoming personal adversity. This model, as per Couser's view of independence, requires as little (acknowledged) assistance as possible. However, it is important to note that the continuum invites a consideration, not just of the work done by collaborators, but of their power and status. With this in mind, it should be observed that, according to My Left Foot, Collis was Brown's first and only choice when he realised his need for a collaborator: "[.] a name suddenly flashed across my mind, so suddenly that I almost fell off the chair: 'Collis!' I heard myself saying out loud, 'Collis!'" (146-47). This apparent epiphany invites questions. Following the internal logic of the text, it might be argued that Brown simply makes the connection between the need for order and productivity in his writing, and the doctor who had recently instilled these qualities into his life by enrolling him at the cerebral palsy clinic. Yet Brown appears to protest too much against another possible motivation: "It was only later that I found out that he was [.] Robert Collis, the author too, the man who had written the famous play, Marrowbone Lane, The Silver Fleece, his own autobiography, along with other plays and books" (147). It should be noted that Brown's emphasis is as much on Collis's fame as his writing experience. Although Collis's role as authorial mentor is detailed in the text, and considered in the next section, the issue of his fame, and thus status, merits further investigation, especially as Brown downplays its importance as a factor in his selection. It may in fact be seen as crucial to the book's genesis. The book's conclusion, a charity concert arranged by Collis to raise awareness of cerebral palsy, is in reality the book's beginning, at least in terms of its popular appeal. For it is here that Collis reads the first chapter of the book aloud to the public. He contextualises it in the public arena by, emphasising its authenticity and authority, offering it as "something that will give you an inside view of a person crippled with cerebral palsy" (182). In vouching for the text and augmenting it with his fame, Collis thus contributes to public demand and interest, all of which would arguably have shaped a book that was still being written. Indeed, it should be noted that the crowd's enthusiastic response is the focus of the book's conventional, reader-pleasing "happy ending." In reaction to their response Brown remarks: "I was at peace, happy" (177-184).

The Writing Process

My Left Foot and I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes present their accounts of their own composition in very different ways. In the former, the process is incorporated as an element of the narrative of the text itself. This arguably results in distortion, as a result of moulding the account of the process to the conventional narrative that Brown wishes to produce. This makes it hard to gain a clear picture of the collaborative process. In the case of I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, the writing process is detailed in an Introduction. However, this Introduction is written by Kaplan alone, which raises its own problems.

The account of production given in My Left Foot commences with Collis arriving at Brown's residence to read his draft, which he describes as "awful," but not without moments of promise. He recruits a tutor to teach his protege "good modern English," so that he might write a story that a reader "can live in [.] himself" (thus, we might infer, broadening and normalizing the subjectivity of the text) (148-50). Brown writes that he re-drafted the text with Collis "behind" him (151). The doctor's instruction is didactic, as he lectures on the "forms ... standards ... principles and conventions" of literature. Brown states: "[H]e did all the talking, and I did all the listening." Simultaneously, Brown employs a new amanuensis, his brother Francis, who "thought about what he was writing" and thus offered more input. Thus, Brown's input into the text is arguably diminished in two areas, due to his dependency on Collis's approval, and his dependency on his brother's input. The next draft has a more "clearcut" theme, "more orderly" construction and a "more mature" level of thought behind it, but Collis deems it " 'still too literary' " and requests another. Brown concurs, finding it "pompous and unnecessarily dramatic" (166-68). This implies that he believes that a disability autobiography should be simple, humble and prosaic, which My Left Foot certainly is. It is interesting to note that values had changed considerably by 1987 (the time of Sienkiewicz-Mercer), when Christopher Nolan's autobiography Under the Eye of the Clock, describing his upbringing in Dublin with cerebral palsy, won the Whitbread Book of the Year for its selfconsciously flamboyant literary style.

According to My Left Foot, however, despite (or perhaps because of) Collis's instruction, Brown grows frustrated with this process of composition. One night, struggling to express himself through dictation, but finding that his words are "all wrong and twisted," he has a revelation: "suddenly I remembered my left foot" (173-74). Seizing a pencil, as he first seized a stick of chalk as a child, he writes with his forbidden foot once more. Free of the physical shackles of normality, he writes for hours, feeling "free" and like a "different person." He is "released, at peace," revelling in the ability to "be [him]self," yet when Collis finds out, he urges him: "don't use it except when you must" (175). Taking into account the internal tensions revealed by the above analysis of the account of the writing process, it is unsurprising that concerns over authority and authenticity should come to the fore at the text's climax, especially, as we have seen, because the climax is also the beginning of the text's public life. When Collis asks to read Brown's first chapter aloud, he insists that Brown appear onstage with him so that "'they'll know it's your work not mine.'" As Collis reads the piece aloud, Brown wonders: "Had I really written all that stuff? Did all that really come out of my mind? It seemed as if I was dreaming" (183). The same question might have been asked by Sienkiewicz-Mercer upon reading I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, and the Introduction to the text appears to function primarily as an attempt to answer it. Although such transparency of process might be taken, as Couser notes, as a sign of "ethically sound collaboration" this is tempered by the fact that it is written solely by Kaplan, a development that raises other ethical concerns (Couser 2004, 35). His attempt to contextualise the text and its process of production expands to fill the void caused by the absence of his partner's voice, and thus tends towards contextualising her also. For example, he describes Sienkiewicz-Mercer's abilities thus: "She has never spoken a word, never written or typed a sentence. She has had little formal education, and reads, at best, at a first-grade level, recognizing only simple words placed before her in a familiar context" (Sienkiewicz-Mercer and Kaplan vii). This description appears simple and straightforward: that is the problem. Although all of the above is 'true', Kaplan, perhaps demonstrating his training as a lawyer, turns shades of grey into black and white. In fact, as the text proper shows, Sienkiewicz-Mercer did "write," used recognisable sounds to communicate, and was of average intelligence. No doubt Kaplan gives such a description with the best of intentions, yet the subtle but important way in which he misrepresents the abilities (and thus the contribution) of his collaborator illustrates the risks tied up in her dependence on him. In attempting to emphasise what she has achieved (perhaps unconsciously following the traditional individual-overcomingadversity model of autobiography), he over-emphasises her disability. This slippage is apparent elsewhere in his use of traditional, unthinkingly negative language to describe his subject as a "victim" of cerebral palsy, "confined" to her wheelchair by a "functionally useless" body (vii). However unwittingly, such language undermines Kaplan's earnest efforts to emphasise that the book is "recounted by" Sienkiewicz-Mercer, and that it is "her autobiography, written with [his] assistance" (viii).

Kaplan does, however, provide a reasonably clear account of the process of composition, citing an episode in the book as an example. Sienkiewicz-Mercer would initiate an anecdote by spelling a name or word. Kaplan would respond by asking questions to establish the time and location of the event. Precise details relied on her "very rudimentary" spelling (x, xi). Next, Kaplan would ask a "few dozen" follow-up questions, "coloring" the story according to her responses via facial expressions and sounds. The equivalent of five minutes' conversation would take "about an hour." The flowing prose of the text proper references these roots, what might be called "seed words" (for example ."SHARI.GRETL.SOAP.") in the title of each chapter, presumably as a prop to authenticity (25). Importantly, Kaplan notes that he would supplement Sienkiewicz-Mercer's account with interviews with friends, relatives and staff, and by using official records, a trait more common in biography than autobiography, as Couser notes, and one that arguably further undermines the authenticity of the text as 'her' story (Couser 2004, 45). Next, he would write a draft "from Ruth's point of view" which he would read aloud to her. Having "carefully explored her reaction," to make sure that she was "comfortable with the descriptive language and commentary" he would write a final draft (Sienkiewicz-Mercer and Kaplan, xi).

Although the resultant text is written by Kaplan, he insists that the "thoughts and emotions, the impressions and observations" contained within are Sienkiewicz-Mercer's "alone." Yet he appears to recognise that this state of affairs is somehow unsatisfactory. He wonders what "idioms, vocabulary [and] tone" she would use if she could "express herself on paper" (xii). Although he notes that she has claimed to possess an inner voice that "talks in words and phrases, sentences, even paragraphs," Kaplan is strangely dismissive, stating that this voice would be more likely to feature "internal sounds and evocative non-verbal images" (xiixiii). He perhaps makes this judgement on the basis of her limited external voice, able only to produce "ten distinct sounds" (vii). Furthermore, he appears to suggest that Sienkiewicz-Mercer's subjectivity is so radically internalised by her disability that she may perceive this inner voice only as "some disembodied intelligence that drops by for frequent chats" (xii).

Kaplan's dismissal of Sienkiewicz-Mercer's inner voice perhaps stems from an inability on his part to understand the unconventional subjectivity arising from her disability. This again raises questions about his suitability as her collaborator, even if his undermining of her authority and viability is unintentional. (That it is unintentional is evident from his insistence elsewhere that he guarded against "unwittingly embod[ying] too many of [his] own projections," that the duo often "floundered over an obscure detail" at Sienkiewicz-Mercer's insistence on getting it "just right," and that he even tested her by providing "plausible, [but] partially inaccurate" summaries which she refused to accept) (xv-xvi). Deeming her actual "voice" unviable, Kaplan argues that the textual voice he creates is "close enough," functioning as an "accurate [.] reconstruction of her viewpoint." Yet even he admits doubt, acknowledging that it "wasn't really her own" (xvii). A paradox is apparent in Kaplan's observation that via this un-real voice, Sienkiewicz-Mercer is "tasting [.] real talking-about-things-going-on language, for the first time" (xviii). In this "real language," and especially in the way in which it effaces Sienkiewicz-Mercer's "inner voice," we might observe a parallel with the prose style of My Left Foot, and the way it limits and effaces Brown's attempts to express his experience.

Policing the Collaboration: Ethics and Viability

In Recovering Bodies, Couser observes that Kaplan's narrative voice raises "questions of authority and authenticity" and argues that however "scrupulous" Kaplan may have been, the narrative voice of the text cannot be regarded as Sienkiewicz-Mercer's because it does not accurately reflect her limited verbal skills. Nevertheless, he defended it for representing "a hidden population" of those unable to write because of disability (Couser 1997, 218). In "Making, Taking, and Faking Lives" his defence is more robust, as he insists that a text that accurately reflected Sienkiewicz-Mercer's level of literacy might have "given a misleading indication of her sensibility and intelligence." Furthermore, he argues that such a text "might have been unpublishable (and virtually unreadable)." (Couser 2004, 38)

This argument might be refuted using the closing passage of I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, where Kaplan for the first and only time in the text presents an extended sample of the "seed words" from which he has extrapolated his narrative. He reproduces Sienkiewicz-Mercer's notes for a speech that he gave on her behalf at a rally for deinstitutionalization, for the purpose of illustrating both her capacity to express herself and the validity of his translation:


Kaplan translates this as follows:

   I was treated like garbage at Belchertown. The Infirmary stunk and
   the whole place was like hell. Now I am getting an education. I go
   grocery shopping for myself, and my personal care attendants ask me
   what I want to do and when I want to do it.

   All of the people still living at the State School should be moved
   out, and all of the money now being spent at the institution should
   be directed to the handicapped people living in the community. The
   State School should be torn down, brick by brick. (225)

Although they are not necessarily evidence of a viable long-form text, the "seed words" are not only readable, but possess a certain poetic quality, and thus literary value, as Kaplan notes in his introduction (xiii). Yet, in stating that it is "better to have a somewhat misrepresentative text written from her point of view than none at all," Couser ignores and effaces the only words of Sienkiewicz-Mercer that are made available to the reader in the finished text without (significant) mediation, much as Kaplan effaces her "inner voice" with his ersatz one (Couser 2004, 38). His use of the term "unpublishable" is critical to an understanding of this apparent oversight. In employing this term, Couser reveals the values that he applies, however unconsciously, in assessing the text's viability (38). These become more apparent in his suggestion that Kaplan's "misrepresentation" of his subject is justified by his creation of a text that is "accessible to a reading public that requires a fluent, detailed narrative" (39). Here, we can see parallels with Brown, and his ambition to write a narrative that would reach the "whole world."

In adopting this position, Couser fails to question the important similarity between a reading public that (supposedly) requires a fluent, detailed narrative, and the society that incarcerated rather than rehabilitated Sienkiewicz-Mercer because she was unable to express herself in a fluent, conventional way. Instead, he asks why it should be deemed unethical to "'amplify'" the voice of a disabled subject (38). The answer might be found in his own observation that Kaplan's translation serves to "hypernormalize" his subject as it "masks or erases the disability that has so profoundly shaped its subject's life." (39) This can be seen as a refinement of his view of "neutral space" as discussed earlier. That Couser does not make this connection himself may be attributed to the fact that although he recognises such an erasure as ethically wrong, he fails to appreciate the political consequences of it. He appears himself to acknowledge this: he notes that the political and the mimetic senses of representation "seem somehow at odds" in the Kaplan/Sienkiewicz-Mercer relationship, but fails to analyse this further. Yet he simply concludes that this effect is "more of an irony than an ethical lapse." (39) Further evidence that Couser's focus on ethics does not cater for a political examination of the issue is apparent in his conceptualization of "harm" done to the subject by the textual products of unethical collaborations as being a matter of damage to subjects' "privacy, to their reputations, [...] to their integrity as individuals." (41) Although he does note the danger of "the appropriation of a life story for purposes not shared, or understood, or consented to by the subject," this is not a charge that he levels at Kaplan, neither does it cover Kaplan's damaging symbolic appropriation of his subject, as detailed below (48).

Couser, does, however, offer a way of addressing this problem in placing an emphasis on the role of the critic. He notes that their scrutiny enables them to detect problems that are "manifest in the text," to "correct for" them (even if they cannot correct them) and to "act, in effect, as the advocate of the subject, whose life may have been inaccurately portrayed or unfairly appropriated." (42) The validity of such an intervention, however, would surely depend on the critic's understanding of the subject's situation. For example, Couser's claim that subjects who cannot read and write (therefore presumably including Sienkiewicz-Mercer as per his earlier categorisation) "are less liable to damage by the product" because they may well "never confront their published alter egos" is deeply troubling (42). From the perspective of a literary disability critic, this belief that the text and the world can remain separate, and that the symbolic appropriation of Sienkieiwcz-Mercer does not perpetuate a certain ideology of disability that will impact on her existence seems naive, to say the least.

The seriousness of this problem can be illustrated by the imagery employed by Kaplan in the Afterword, again written solely by him. Presumably as an attempt to emphasise the text's significance (and thus its popular appeal), he strives to expand the personal into the general, in much the same way as Collis encouraged Brown, by metaphorically transfiguring Sienkiewicz-Mercer's disability-based distinction. In doing so, he reveals a profound misapprehension of key disability issues. He claims that Sienkiewicz-Mercer's "very existence embodies the predominant symbol of our century: the concentration camp" (Sienkiewicz-Mercer and Kaplan xxv). This phrase reveals once more the traditional assumptions about disability of the sort apparent in the Introduction. That Kaplan should appropriate his co-author's "very existence" as a useful symbol for "our" dominant /ableist-discourse is deeply troubling. In a way, it is fortuitous that he should couple this with concentration camp imagery: the symbolic appropriation of disability has gone on long enough to be widely accepted without question, but the removal of the concentration camp, in a similar fashion, from its established social-historic specificity and meaning is more likely to raise eyebrows. This juxtaposition reveals the same concealment of real social oppression that is similarly concealed when Sienkiewicz-Mercer's disability is appropriated. The paradox of Kaplan's image-that Sienkiewicz-Mercer is oppressed (and the notion of oppression is clearly suggested by Kaplan's own imagery, not by my inference) by her own body-her self, in other words, rather than the society that incarcerated and abused her-is thus thrown into sharp relief.

The mingling of disability and concentration camp imagery brings to mind the early-twentieth century popularity of eugenics that reached its peak in the Nazi Holocaust-a vivid example that suffering and oppression is a social condition, rather than an individual one (the eugenic link is further strengthened by Kaplan's unfortunate decision to further describe Sienkiewicz-Mercer's body as a "natural" concentration camp). The associative leap to Sienkiewicz-Mercer's incarceration at Belchertown State School requires little imagination. Yet Kaplan does not make it. Despite the book's origins in a political project, and his oft-stated commitment to expressing Sienkiewicz-Mercer's experience, a precise focus on disability as a political identity is missing from the introduction, even as it features thematically in the main narrative. The link between Sienkiewicz-Mercer's institutionalisation and the concentration camps is apt and, in its shocking nature, might have revealed something to the nondisabled reader about their own, and wider, attitudes to disability in the last century. Instead, her suffering is blamed on her body rather than the social system, dividing her against herself. Her disability is individualised and symbolised, and this blurred, confused account of things is used to bolster a story of "our" (nondisabled) progress.

There is a possibility that the fault-lines in Kaplan's statement are the remains of an initial intent to draw such explicit parallels between Sienkiewicz-Mercer's incarceration and the Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps this position, revealing the nightmare of failed independence in Sienkiewicz-Mercer's blameless incarceration, was suppressed in favour of a story that would boost and reassure society-the story of an individual's triumph over the tragedy of her disability. Might the desire to give the memoir a mass-market (and therefore nondisabled) appeal motivate such a move? Coincidentally, in the text proper, Sienkiewicz-Mercer herself, musing on the content of a charity appeal film, notes that "the general public's attitudes [.] had a great deal to do with determining the tone of the film" (21). Even so, the proffering of Sienkiewicz-Mercer as a symbol, an embodiment of somebody else's values and ideology, negates both her humanity and agency. It also undermines and contradicts the purpose and point of ensuring that Sienkiewicz-Mercer tells her story in her own terms: if her identity truly is inscribed in her body, why would it need the exegesis of a memoir?

Dependency as a theme in My Left Foot and I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes

Thus far, it has been shown that dependence on collaborators, and the conventions of the autobiography as a genre, have influenced the form the texts have taken. Although, as Couser rightly notes, form and content can never be truly separated, it can be observed that, while some formal aspects of the disability experience-a certain subjectivity, a certain aesthetic-have been discarded, suppressed or simply not addressed in the dependence on able-bodied collaborators, the disability experience does persist in content (Couser 2004, 36). This is true of dependency as a theme. It is dealt with more explicitly in I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, arguably as a result of that text's origins in the disability rights movement where the idea of access to assistance as a right rather than a privilege is recognised. In My Left Foot, however, which as a pre-disability rights text is modelled on the idea of Brown as someone overcoming individual hardship, dependency is only foregrounded in the text in order to demonstrate his lack of it. This is illustrated by the first two chapters of the book, "The Letter 'A'" and "M-O-T-H-E-R." In the first, the infant Brown is declared an 'imbecile' by doctors, but his mother refuses to accept this diagnosis and sets out to "prove" her point (MLF 11). Undoubtedly, it is this desire that results in the episode around which the book is based, when the five-year-old Christy seizes a stick of chalk with his left foot and makes "a wild sort of scribble with it." (15) Although Brown, perhaps for the purposes of distinction, plays up the mystery of this moment, insisting that his foot acted "apparently on its own volition," he nevertheless acknowledges the crucial nature of his mother's reaction to this incident. She draws a letter "A" and encourages him to copy it until he is able to do so successfully, thus setting him on the path to self-expression (16-17) The next chapter functions almost as a re-iteration of this scene, with a subtle difference: it seeks to emphasise Brown's independence by showing that he is no longer dependent on his mother. An older Brown, having reached the limits of the basic education his Mother can provide, gazes at her as she nurses her new infant. The spectacle moves him to inscribe a word. He stresses, however, that he feels compelled to construct it without her aid. When he completes this word, he shows it to her. The word, deferred until the passage's end, is "M-O-T-H-E-R" (25). Having mastered language (and indeed, having mastered her by placing her in the patriarchal hierarchy of language, assigning her an identity solely based on her role), he no longer needs her assistance with writing. This episode thus serves the needs of the individual-overcoming-personal-adversity model that shapes the text as a whole.

I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes is far more explicit about its author's dependence. Near the beginning, the text states: "Despite my unavoidable dependency on others for physical assistance, I am a very independent person in thought and spirit. I have always striven to be as self-reliant as possible" (12). For Sienkiewicz-Mercer then, independence and (inter)dependency are not mutually exclusive: or rather, she recognises that "dependency" as a notion is under-analysed. Yet much of the text reveals how her perception of dependency is at odds with that of most people that she encounters, and that their lack of awareness of the complexities of dependency has a negative impact on her life. From the psychologist who misdiagnoses her as an 'imbecile' at the age of five, thus preventing her from receiving an education and therapy, to the nurses who do not realise that her hip is broken and causing her pain, failure on the part of these individuals to accommodate her small amount of dependency results in a much larger one, compounding her disability (8, 145). As she notes: "As long as these people considered my brain useless and my facial expressions and sounds meaningless, I was doomed to remain 'voiceless'" (42). Yet Sienkiewicz-Mercer observes that, in reaction to failure to address dependency on the part of the staff at the institution, a complex system of interdependency developed amongst some patients. She gives the example of the mildly retarded April and Theresa, a wheelchair user. While the former dresses and feeds her partner, the latter reciprocates by "constantly advising and instructing her with gentle, understanding firmness." Sienkiewicz-Mercer observes that "the spirit of their relationship was not unusual" on the ward (45-46). Ironically, she theorizes that her own friendship with Goldy, a "retarded" woman, was only possible because the latter was unable to comprehend the abstract concept of Sienkiewicz-Mercer's misdiagnosed 'imbecility' (46-47).

As reforms and campaigns by friends and relatives finally began to change the institution, in the mid-seventies, Sienkiewicz-Mercer was introduced to the independent living movement by a fellow patient and was "quickly convinced [.] that this should become [her] goal" (142). This ambition took "huge leaps forward" when she was finally given communication therapy (153-54). From the first clumsy "expressor" to the voice synthesiser she is using by 1987, she revels in being able to produce messages "without anyone's assistance" (156). Furthermore, it is through her speech therapist, Chris Dendor, that Sienkiewicz-Mercer first encounters political activism. Dendor was "a strong advocate of the women's movement" and their discussions of it left Sienkiewicz-Mercer "increasingly enthusiastic" about it, too. She notes that Dendor's politics shaped her conduct, and that her treatment of their communication as "a two-way process," giving her "plenty of opportunities to express [her]self" is distinctly unusual (158). Thus, I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes emphasises how activism, education, self-expression and independent living are all part of the same thing for Sienkiewicz-Mercer, and therefore the significance of the political aspect of her identity and its "mis-speaking" by Kaplan. For example, she emphasises how relieved she is to be finally able to express "in words" something as simple as "'.I.FEEL.BAD.'" (160). It is not the expression of her feeling that is important, but the form of expression-words. All these developments combine to make her feel "more like a real person," "inspired" to pursue her civil rights (186, 194). When, on March 10th 1978, she first appears as "an advocate for the rights of the physically handicapped," addressing an audience at International Women's Week at the University of Massachusetts, her theme is her "lifelong dependency on other people." (199).


It can be seen that dependency on able-bodied collaborators has consequences for the authenticity and authority of My Left Foot and I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes as examples of disability life-writing. However, the most serious of these consequences are not an inevitable consequence of collaboration, but rather a result of the able-bodied collaborators' unconscious adherence to the (ideologically loaded) conventions of autobiography. This is particularly evident in the case of My Left Foot, where Collis's influence is felt largely through his instruction of Brown in these conventions. Dependency, although in need of further analysis as a concept, is not in itself the problem: as Couser concludes, "a model of functional independence requiring unassisted communication would be discriminatory and oppressive" (Couser 2004, 53). However, as the persistence of obsolete values even in the comparatively recent I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes (a text emerging from a disability rights milieu) illustrates, the sort of policing role played by the critic as envisioned by Couser is essential.

Works Cited

Brown, Christy. My Left Foot. 1954. London: Collins, 2000.

---. Down all the Days. New York: Stein and Day, 1970.

Couser, G. Thomas. Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing. Madison and London: U Of Wisconsin P, 1997.

--. "Making, Taking, and Faking Lives." Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2004. 34-55.

Davis, Lennard J. Enforcing Normalcy: Blindness, Deafness, and the Body. London: Verso, 1995.

--. Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism and Other Difficult Positions. New York; London: New York UP, 2002.

Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder, eds. The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses of Disability. Ann Arbor: The U Of Michigan P, 1997.

Sienkiewicz-Mercer, Ruth, and Steven B. Kaplan. I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes. London: Grafton Books, 1989.


(1) Tom Coogan, Doctoral Candidate, Department of English, University Of Leicester.

Tom Coogan (1)

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A243528237